Now that’s punny

Last week my column covered the growing controversy about horse meat in food products around the world. At the beginning, I acknowledged that the piece would include a number of puns, first noting that Swedish meatballs would now be perfect for bridle showers. This is called a homophonic pun because the two words (bridal and bridle) are identical in sound, but different in meaning. Don’t fall asleep yet.

It is fascinating how many people wrote me about the column and peppered their remarks with additional puns, some of which I had not thought of:

I was chomping at the bit to read your column.

Pony up and pay for that cheeseburger.

Column seemed rushed. Are you too saddled with other work?

The column really did stirrup my emotions.

All these offerings reminded me of one humorist’s observation: “A pun is a short quip followed by a long groan.” But why does a pun often elicit such a response? I have a theory about that.

In any joke there is a gap between the information provided and the info required to comprehend the witty remark. For example: “The man who invented the Hokey Pokey dance has died. It took the family six hours to get him in the coffin.” To laugh at this observation requires that you know what the Hokey Pokey is and then have a visual image of the man’s legs and arms moving in and out of the casket. If the reference to the lyrics “you put your right foot in, you put your right foot out” were to be included in the telling, the joke would not be funny because the listener has too small a role in putting it all together. And so my theory is that laughter is the reward you pay yourself for being smart enough to “get” the joke by filling in the missing data.

Now, here’s the problem with puns: There is no missing data. Most everybody gets a pun. All the information is right there. The punster seems to be broadcasting that what he just said doesn’t take any brains to understand, so anyone will be smart enough to enjoy it. While most people don’t usually laugh at other people’s puns, they generally feel free to offer their own when the humor spirits move them, which is why a pun really is the lowest form of humor, unless you thought of it yourself.

A final suggestion from a Mr. Anonymous: If you do have a friend who is an incorrigible punster, my suggestion is to not incorrige him.